Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener": Humorous or Tragic?

Essay by picabo21University, Bachelor's March 2004

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If ever there are two opposite themes offered in the telling of one tale, it is in Herman Melville's short story, "Bartleby the Scrivener". As his perspective swings between the objective and subjective, so swings the theme from comedy to tragedy. Regardless of the two perspectives from which Herman Melville relates the story of Bartleby, the telling of a tragic story with humorous subjectivity, the story's plot and outcome determines the categorization. In fact, had Melville not peppered the story with his narrative, light-hearted, internal musings, and shared with the audience a "grasping at straw" style of rationalization, the main theme could only have been categorized as tragic. Regardless of the two perspectives from which Herman Melville relates the story of Bartleby, the telling of a tragic story sprinkled with humorous subjectivity, the actual story line, through its progression should determine its categorization. For this reason, Bartleby the Scrivener, is a tragedy.

Throughout the story Melville relates the many troubling incidents experienced with the mysterious copier. Bartleby's reactions to his superior are so unlike those which most of us have ever experienced, human nature causes the reader to attempt to apply logic to his eccentricities. When asked to proofread a copy, Bartleby's outrageous answer is, "I prefer not to". Having just been introduced to Bartleby and still formulating a first impression, the audience is required to grapple with a logical explanation for his troubling behaviour. At that point, Melville introduces his first bit of comic relief, enlisting the audience's empathy in stating, "To befriend Bartleby; to humour him in his strange wilfulness will cost me little or nothing, while I lay up in my soul what will eventually prove a sweet morsel for my conscience". Since there is no excusing Bartleby's behaviour, Melville finds solace in rationalizing his...



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